Hey, hey! Welcome back for another Writer Wednesday! Today we have author (and former actress!) Morgan York here to talk about why bad first drafts are actually really great.
She talks about a lot of excellent points, so take a look at what she’s got to tell us!
Why A Bad First Draft is An Ideal First Draft
Yes, you read that title correctly. In the writing world, we do a lot of reassuring ourselves that a first draft does not have to be good. “I just have to get everything down right now,” we tell ourselves, desperately ignoring how much this chapter resembles a steaming pile of crap. “I can revise it later. Writing is rewriting, right? Right?”
But I think a lot of us hold a secret opinion, which is that it’s okay for first drafts to be bad—except for my first drafts. “My first draft,” we whisper, “has to roll perfectly from my fingertips. I will get everything right on the first try. If it isn’t perfect, or close to perfect, I’m afraid that means the book is doomed.”
Well, I have good news: if your first draft is bad, that’s a good thing. It will make revisions easier, in a sense. I’m not kidding.
When it comes to something as long, multilayered, and complicated as a novel, it is nearly impossible to immediately get everything right. Insisting your first draft will be perfect means that, on the very first try, you will nail plot, pacing, character consistency, character arcs, prose quality, structure, dialogue, voice, descriptions, timelines, theme, atmosphere…I could go on forever. This is a lot to balance simultaneously. Most people, including seasoned writers, can only focus on a handful of these at a time, and tackle the rest in revisions. When you strive for a flawless first draft, you’re saying you will catch every plot hole on your own. You’re saying your characters will never manifest on the page differently from how you envisioned, leading them down a path your outline didn’t account for. You’re saying that, if you’re writing characters with identities you don’t have, you will not leave space for any major changes a sensitivity reader could suggest.
I’ll use myself as an example. Two years ago, I wrote a novel I thought would land me an agent. Why was I so confident? Because of how effortlessly it spilled from my fingers, especially that opening scene. I adored that opener—so much that when it came time to revise, I barely touched it. I’d fallen in love with it, which warped my perspective. I didn’t think too hard about ways it could improve, or how a reader might pick it apart. It took a full year before I saw the issues, after several beta readers and agents had provided similar feedback. It was too interior, without much action. It didn’t root the reader in enough context. As a result, the story started out slow. It didn’t work hard enough to pull readers in.
Fast forward to now. I’m drafting a new novel, and I’m determined to learn from the mistakes I made with the last one. In fact, I selected an entirely new first scene based on that previous book’s feedback, since the original one fell into some of the same traps. But while writing the first chapter, I was a ball of anxiety. The chapter felt like a mess. I couldn’t tell if I was revealing enough exposition, or dumping on too much. The protagonist’s voice felt shaky. The prose was too cluttered—another type of feedback agents had given me. Where had my confidence gone? Why was this book starting off disastrously?
But I kept going. At this point, I’m almost finished with the draft. I recently braced myself and took another look at the first chapter.
Something had changed. Suddenly, the chapter looked messy, but not impossible to fix. Now that I understand the story and characters better, it’s easier for me to see spots where I can freshen up the voice, or adjust exposition levels. The sentences that worked stood out from the sentences that didn’t—so much of it could be easily cut. It was like my former self was screaming, “I don’t know what I’m doing! Help!” And now I’m here, able to say, “I’ve got you, girl.”
This clearheaded perspective would not have been possible if I’d been attached to the first draft. If you don’t expect to find mistakes, you probably won’t notice any. Now that I’ve internalized the idea “This first draft is not working,” I am more open to changes and less likely to cling to things that hurt the book. Sure, revisions will be more time-consuming, and will require more effort overall. But I much prefer that to brashly believing the novel doesn’t need much revision, only to learn the hard way that it very much does.
Regardless, revisions will be a challenge. I’m positive there will still be aspects I will struggle to change or cut completely. For now, though, I’m embracing the insecurity that comes with this first draft. I have faith that Future Me will be better equipped to see the issues, and to adjust the book accordingly.
Keep up the bad work, friends.
You probably stumbled across this in one of two ways:
1) You were watching Cheaper by the Dozen (1 or 2), The Pacifier, or Hannah Montana and thought to yourself, “I wonder whatever happened to the girl who played Kim/Lulu/Sarah?” Then you looked up my name, Googled “Morgan York,” and here you are.
2) You’re a writer/some publishing-affiliated person who followed the link to my site via my Twitter page. And you just read #1 in this list and are thinking, “Wait, Hannah Montana? What??”
Anyway, hi. I’m Morgan York, a 25-year-old New Yorker trying to get her novels published. Currently, my focus as a writer is YA fantasy, but I’ve also dabbled in contemporary/realistic fiction, both in YA and adult. I enjoy reading, video games, traveling, and drinking all kinds of tea.
On my blog, you’ll find me discussing writing, books, feminism, LGBTQ issues, YA lit, publishing, diverse fiction, my acting years, and anything else that strikes my fancy. There’s also my Writes and Crafts series, in which I dole out writing advice, and Write Bites, which includes shorter, more bite-sized thoughts on writing.
Thank you so much for visiting, and head over to the FAQ if you have any questions!